The job of prime minister in France’s republic is frequently described as a “fuse,” one that can be usefully tripped to appease popular disgruntlement without disturbing either the sitting president or the make-up of parliament. Since 1995, France has had four presidents but nine prime ministers, each with an average career span of around two to three years.
So going by fuse theory, Emmanuel Macron’s replacement on Friday of his popular No. 2, Edouard Philippe, and the current government is entirely in keeping with French political tradition. After last week’s dreadful set of local election results for Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche!, and a COVID-19 crisis that’s wiped out all of the economic turnaround he’s presided over since 2017, some kind of change was needed. Rather more awkwardly, Philippe’s calm, collected demeanour during the national lockdown had clearly resonated better with the French than Macron’s august Jupiterian approach.
Replacing Philippe and his ministers wasn’t the only option. Macron could have done many things, from a minor cabinet reshuffle right up to dissolving parliament. But, with an eye on the next presidential election in 2022, this was seen as the least bad of several bad choices. Blowing up his parliamentary majority would have been remarkably reckless considering his party was only created a few years ago.
Macron might well find Castex to be a safe pair of hands, but for now, the obvious beneficiary of this situation looks to be Edouard Philippe. Popular ministers tend to become presidential contenders when they’re cast out.
Ditching Philippe, a centre-right politician who isn’t even technically a member of En Marche!, paves the way for Macron to tack left if he so chooses, or into more eco-friendly territory, as voters fret about the environment. However his new prime minister, Jean Castex, isn’t even a radical break with the past: He’s another centre-right graduate of France’s elite school for civil servants, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. He was plucked from relative obscurity in April to head the French government’s lockdown exit strategy.
Still, for all the predictable and safe elements of this move, it marks rising political risk in the Eurozone’s second-biggest economy. Sure, Macron is still best-placed in the polls to beat Marine Le Pen in 2022, but possibly with a narrower margin of victory than in 2017. The country is increasingly fragmented along ideological lines. On one side is the “bourgeois bloc” of urban voters who increasingly aspire to far greener policies and, on the other, those in less affluent areas that have come out in force against proposed reforms such as fuel taxes (scrapped) and pension reform (on hold).
Even if Macron’s compromises and fudges have kept the Gilets Jaunes and trade unions from taking to the streets once more, there’s still a lot of uncertainty.
Internal divisions in Macron’s party
The potentially huge political and economic changes in the pipeline after COVID-19 won’t just pressure Macron, but will also aggravate internal divisions within his party as its left and right wings try to grab the wheels of policy and influence. Newspaper Le Monde recently said Macron’s party was in an “existential crisis.” With only two years to go before voters go to the polls, and with Macron’s approval ratings still poor, there’s no guarantee he comes out of this stronger.
Macron might well find Castex to be a safe pair of hands, but for now, the obvious beneficiary of this situation looks to be Edouard Philippe. Popular ministers tend to become presidential contenders when they’re cast out from government, much like Macron himself when he broke with predecessor Francois Hollande. Philippe was a good and loyal prime minister who has gone out on a high — we haven’t heard the last of him, and he’s a tough act to follow. Tripping a fuse was easy— finding the perfect replacement was not.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels.